The Polynesian Triangle—an area that’s home to some of the world’s most spectacular tropical waters—stretches across the Pacific Ocean from Hawaii to New Zealand and across to Easter Island. Among the aforementioned, the major archipelagos—the Cook Islands, Marquesas Islands, Tongan Islands and French Polynesia—cinematically float among an epic expanse of crystalline waters. Home to daydreams and old-school screensavers for generations, the region, which is dotted with sugar sand islands, islets, and coral atolls, is also an inventive one. It is here that surfing, over-water bungalow hotels, and, some say, the art of storytelling tattoos were first practiced.
From the Tahitian word tatau
Born of the Tahitian word tatau,the Marquesean tatatau, and kakauin Hawaiian, which mean to tap continuously and/or place upon, the sacred art form of tattooing has been practiced by Polynesian cultures for more than two thousand years. The tribal art adorned the body across the chests and down the upper thighs of men to tell the story of family, territory, status, and cultural identity. And it weaved the stories of the past to the present. In some island groups, heads and faces were also marked, although that was generally reserved for royalty. Designs, like the Polynesian cultures across each archipelago themselves, had some varieties, yet all were considered highly sacred and, in some cases, a blessing.
A divine craft
Tattooing was considered a link between the spiritual and physical world. It linked bearers to ancestral traditions and protected against evil. And Tahitian folklore defines the craft as divine—it was gifted to humans by the sons of the creator. Tattooed themselves, Miramar and Tu Ra’i Po—the patron gods of the art and sons of Ta’aroa, the supreme god—taught the men art of tattooing with plant ink culled from indigenous nut oil and hot combs made of bone (sharpened boar teeth, as in the case of the Samoan Islands), mother of pearl, or tortoise shell with wooden handles. An additional hammer drove the ink deep into the skin leaving the permanent marking.
How tattooing became a cultural ritual
A rite of passage, men became tattooed prior to or in tandem with life rituals. Commonly the ritual of body art was administered as a man was ready to enter into marriage (in Tahiti and Hawaii, for example). This is especially notable since many of the geometric motifs were believed to preserve the wearer’s mana (divine essence), which protected or enhanced health, spiritual balance, and fertility. Placement is also considered significant. In the Marquesas Islands, tattoos adorning the upper leg relate to marriage. Artwork that stretches up from the thigh to the navel is said to correlate to sexuality, its power and procreation, as well as life’s energy and courage. The left side of the body is traditionally associated with women (or the maternal story of the wearer); the right points to male family stories. Marital tattoo sessions were seen as a coming of age rite, often lasting months with sessions taking full days from dawn until dusk. Unsurprisingly, the ocean played a great role in the tradition. Seawater was used to sanitize the tools. The tufuga (tattoo artist in many of the Polynesian languages) broke a vessel of water at the feet of the recipient to mark the end of the ritual. And it is believed that swimming in the sea after the session not only healed the micro tears in the skin, but also helped the designs settle.
Once healed (in some cases, it could take up to a year), the bearer brought his story to his bride for a celebration of uniting family. For her part in Tahiti, Hawaii, and other archipelagos, she often brought a tapa (cloth) delineating the dual family stories meeting together in this union. Births of children and other significant life achievements, such as battles and prowess in fishing or hunting, were added to the men’s larger pieces throughout their lifetimes.
How it has evolved
In the Polynesian Triangle, people still wear the story of their family and traditions indelibly on their skin. However, the intricacies and divine properties of the tradition was lost when tattooing was banned by the Christian missionaries. While there was some tattooing across the region. And curiously, the body art traditions returned to the South Pacific in large part because of the rise in popularity in the West. (Captain Cook’s crew brought back bodies emblazoned with art. And body marking became a resume of sorts for sailors, who got branded in each port). Elders and younger artists have taken up the tools of tradition and now offer the art form to locals and visitors who are looking for ways to explain their personal stories.